The Migration of African Americans to the Canadian Football League during the mid-20th Century: An Escape from Discrimination?
The institutional racial discrimination that existed in American professional team sports prior to World War II resulted in African American players effectively being barred from playing in the major professional leagues. Although the NFL color barrier did officially fall in 1946, to be quickly followed by the fall of the MLB color barrier one year later when Jackie Robinson made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers, these events were just the beginning of the struggles for African American athletes. Integration proceeded very slowly during the next two decades, and economists have shown that African Americans continued to suffer from a variety of forms of discriminatory treatment. However, it is the argument of this paper that the literature that examines discrimination during this era is incomplete, in that it ignores the experiences of a small, but relatively significant, group of African American football players who actually chose to leave their own country – and correspondingly leave the racially-charged environment of mid-20th century America – to head north to play professional football in the Canadian Football League (CFL). Beginning in 1946, a steady flow of African Americans began to migrate to the CFL which, at the time, was a legitimate competitor league to the NFL. This paper attempts to test a perception seemingly held by some that, by moving to Canada, African American football players were able to escape the racial injustices they often suffered in the US. This view appears to have its roots in the notion that Canada is a “gentler”, more tolerant society, without the divisive socio-political history that characterizes much of the race relations in the US. This paper tests these notions using a variety of empirical approaches. The results indicate that, while African Americans were better represented in the CFL relative to the NFL, African Americans still faced some level of entry discrimination in the CFL. In particular, African American players in the CFL outperformed their white counterparts on numerous performance dimensions, indicating the overall talent level in the CFL could have been further improved by employing an even greater number of African Americans. Additionally, the paper finds that those CFL teams that employed the highest percentage of African Americans were those teams that had the most on-field success. Finally, the paper analyzes prices of player trading cards from that era, and finds that cards of African Americans were undervalued, relative to white CFL players of equal talent.